“A man does what he must – in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures – and that is the basis of all human morality.” – Winston Churchill
I just found out I’ve been given a Churchill fellowship. It’s a huge honour and one that reminds me of the choices we can make when dealing with challenges of enormous scale.
Earlier this year, when I was still recovering from Copenhagen and staying with a friend in London, I found myself on the doorsteps of the Churchill war rooms.
There was only an hour until the museum closed, and they advised me to come back tomorrow to get the most out of the experience, but the sun had set and as I looked outside at the dark, cold wintry sleet of London in early January, I decided I’d rather spend an hour somewhere warm and postpone the icy walk home until my toes had defrosted.
About five minutes into my visit I realized this was no ordinary museum. This was the secret underground British government command centre during the war. These were the actual rooms – preserved like it was only yesterday – where Churchill had planned his war: strategized and plotted and judged intelligence reports and given orders.
Decisions made in these war rooms affected people in my own family – like my grandfather, who was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his role in the war flying with the 514 Squadron RAF, and his brother, who never made it home. World War Two suddenly became a lot more real.
The rooms were in a labyrinth of thin, dimly-lit corridors. Old maps with ships marked on them were stuck to the walls of the meeting rooms. Bunks were down below. Senior officials – including Churchill himself – had proper bedrooms, featuring a desk and a small single bed.
The intensity of focus on the outcome was personified in the physical layout of the structure. And what struck me about it all was the sense of purpose.
There was only one purpose in these rooms, and it was palpable. One reason alone for the structure to exist. Its pulse throbbed in the veins of every woman and man who worked there, permeating their days and nights for almost six years until they had achieved their outcome and won the war.
Churchill knew a thing or two about determination. He slept only five hours per night on average, and threw everything he had into winning the war. His determination kept not just the war rooms, but the whole country, together, when everything seemed like it was falling apart, and bombs were raining down from the sky.
This is the kind of sense of purpose and determination that many Australian climate activists today feel, despite some big setbacks recently.
Things have been tough for the climate movement this year: the fallout from Copenhagen; the rise of climate denialism, our Governments’ backflip on a carbon price, the Gulf Oil Disaster and of course the new scientific evidence, rolling in on headlines to our inboxes each morning before breakfast, reminding us that climate change is worsening, faster, already impacting hundreds of thousands of people, everywhere.
And now it looks like Julia Gillard may be trying to cop out of committing to implement a carbon price in her first term of Government, hiding behind the excuse of needing to “build a consensus” despite the fact that a recent Auspoll shows that 72% of Australians already support taking action on climate change.
There are several times this year when I’ve heard Churchill’s words in my mind: “When you’re going through hell, keep going.”
And it’s worth reminding those who still oppose action on climate change that the climate movement will do exactly that: keep going. And keep trying new things. Proving to Julia Gillard that the consensus does exist, and what we’re waiting for is leadership.
In Churchill’s words, “We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire. Neither the sudden shock of battle, nor the long-drawn trials of vigilance and exertion will wear us down”
We know that the scale of effort required to combat the climate crisis is even bigger than the scale of the war Churchill fought.
But where is our war room?
After I left the Churchill war rooms I came away with a few postcards, souvenirs, and an intense burning desire to build a “climate war room”. An underground bunker with all the best climate strategist brains in the world, each of us with a tiny room featuring only a bed and a desk, meeting rooms filled with maps of fossil fuel infrastructure, a news room with a constant feed of information in and out, and a group of people committed to staying there until we’d won.
I soon realised, of course, that although the climate emergency does require the same scale, drive and commitment as a war effort, we certainly can not win it from a bunker, just like Churchill’s war was really won in the skies, battlefields and beaches.
We can’t win it by being isolated underground, or in ivory towers, or even in office blocks. This is a war effort that means changing the hearts, minds, behaviours and values of people all over the world – helping them to create a better, healthier, saner world starting in our own homes, communities and countries.
Where are our Churchill war rooms? They’re decentralized. They’re in living rooms, University student unions, mother’s meetings. They’re in cinemas, parks and farms. They’re in meeting rooms, carparks and on street corners. And the beauty of this war effort is that anyone can be Churchill. Anyone can be a leader.
How do we win it? Well that’s what we’re experimenting with, every day. And that’s what Churchill’s legacy is going to help me find out more about.
For my Churchill fellowship, I’ll be studying climate change communications – the way we tell stories about climate change in ways that move people’s hearts and minds and inspire them to act. Both through new ways of organizing – online and mobile technologies – and traditional, grassroots work.
Churchill was not perfect – I was horrified to learn of his opposition of the Indian independence movement – but we have a lot to learn from the way he approached, and won, World War Two.
So, when it comes to climate change, what would Churchill do? In his own words: “Never, never, never, never give up.”
PS – If you have any suggestions of messaging or climate-related people or organizations I should meet with in the UK, USA and China, I’d love to hear them.